Sustaining a Blue Economy

World Ocean Day was just celebrated on 8th June and Malaysia has one more reason to celebrate – Coral Triangle Day, an initiative of which six member countries are part of.

With a coastline of 4,492 km long, Malaysia has been a maritime country that relies heavily on economic maritime activities such as fishing, aquaculture, oil and gas, shipping and tourism.

Past studies indicated that marine industries contributed to almost a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Malaysian waters cover an area of 453,186 km2, of which about three per cent has been designated as marine protected areas (MPAs) by various legislation. MPAs here typically refer to Marine Parks and Fisheries Prohibited Areas.

According to a biodiversity report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, we are rich in marine biodiversity and very diverse in marine habitats especially among the coral reefs.

Our coastal zones are most biologically diverse area thanks to the presence of reefs.

We are reported to host 612 species of corals, a figure representing 77 per cent of the world’s coral species!

We are also home to 1,619 species of marine fishes, and four out of seven marine turtle species nest on our beaches – the Green Turtle, Hawksbills, Olive Ridley and Leatherback Turtle.

No wonder we are recognised as one of the 12 mega-diverse countries in the world!

One could imagine the beauty of our underwater world.

Regionally, an area known as the Coral Triangle geographically spanning across six countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, hosts 76 per cent of the world’s coral species and 37 per cent of reef fish species.

It is also a haven for thousands of whales, dolphins, sharks, rays and six marine turtle species.

Deemed “the nursery of the seas”, the Coral Triangle is one of the Earth’s three great ecological complexes, the other two being the Congo Basin and the Amazon Rainforest.

Unfortunately scientific studies have shown that 90 per cent of the Coral Triangle’s resources are threatened by commercial activities such as over-fishing, unsustainable fishing practices, pollution from land and increasingly by climate change.

The use of cyanide and dynamite in harmful fishing practices for example, jeopardise our coral reefs.

Higher sea-surface temperatures as an effect of climate change trigger coral bleaching.

Our corals are also harmed by land pollution, alteration to coastline habitats and physical damage by tourism and ships.

With this richness in marine biodiversity and the threats this Triangle faces, in 2009 Malaysia and five other countries – Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste – joint efforts through the Coral Triangle Initiative to work together to sustain and this incredible marine and coastal resources. We want to tackle food security issues, climate change and conserve its biodiversity.

Outside this region, several countries have established state-of-the-art oceanography institutes mainly to advance research in oceanography, to centralise its data repository, and to make well-informed marine and ocean policy recommendations to their governments.

One renowned institute is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the U.S. With an employment of about 1,000 staff including scientists, engineers, information technology professionals and in ship and vehicle crew, it operates on an annual budget of USD 215 million (RM 919 million), pledging to guide mankind stewardship of the environment and to help the state make evidence-based decisions about the ocean.

Closer to home is the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. With a niche in fundamental research, this agency oversees several research institutes and received a staggering JPY 335,000 million (RM 11. 129 billion) budget from the Japanese government, on top of the JPY 472,000 million (RM 15.681 billion) budget for its Japan Trench Fast Drilling Project.

Such is the commitment of these countries in understanding and sustaining the ocean.

In Malaysia through the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI), the National Oceanography Directorate was set up close to two decades ago as a national reference centre for research and development in oceanography and marine sciences in the country.

In the Coral Triangle Initiative especially, MOSTI works very closely with the Sabah state government namely Ministry of Agriculture of Food Industry, Department of Fisheries Sabah, Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah and Sabah Parks.

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With some participants of the 6th Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security Ministerial Meeting in Papua New Guinea, November last year.

Marine parks are set up to conserve marine life and their habitats. There are six marine parks in Sabah, with the most recent one the Tun Mustapha Marine Park, the largest in the country, that is located in the northern region at the Kudat Banggi Priority Conservation Area and encompassing about 50 islands.

This year MOSTI is collaborating with Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Institut Penyelidikan Marin Borneo in celebrating World Ocean Month and Coral Triangle Month from 16th June to 15th July in the local neighbourhoods.

Activities are designed to be inclusive, catering the entire family and people with special abilities, so each member of the public are welcome to attend. You could search “Malaysia National Oceanographic Data Centre – MyNOCD” on Facebook for its outreach program details.

As much as we have done much in oceanography, we have yet to fully take advantage of the economic benefits of our territorial sea and our exclusive economic zone (ECZ). We also lack adequate information on whether particular industrial practices at sea are sustainable or under developed.

It would be timely for the government to review our decades-old policies and management related to oceanography. The reviewed policies should allow us to explore new marine industries such as renewable energy from the ocean, marine biotechnology, marine tourism and the farming of marine organisms.

Equally as important is to allocate sufficient resources for such oceanographic initiatives.

Governing the ocean might be as challenging as it sounds – a number of agencies would have to work together to implement the same policies to avoid duplication and it might be difficult to point out who should take the lead.

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